Anger at cost-cutting plan to devalue 'Oscars'

Lecturers' union may pull out of national Star Awards ceremony that fetes the sector's unsung heroes

The biggest lecturers' union has threatened to pull out of further education's Oscars over plans to use the awards for quality improvement and extending good practice.

Further education's newest quango, the Quality Improvement Agency, says the Star Awards programme "as it currently exists, does not represent good value to the sector or to the QIA." It has threatened to significantly cut the awards' current pound;1 million annual budget to between pound;100,000 and Pounds 250,000.

QIA's proposals, presented to the awards' steering group members last month, suggest replacing the awards' national ceremony with regional awards events which would create more winners. The 2006 ceremony takes place at the end of this month.

The QIA has denied that it plans to do away with a national event entirely.

It proposes "a simpler award scheme which will retain the focus on recognising and publicising the sector's unsung heroes, but will be much more cost effective".

Money saved will be used to implement and embed the improvement strategy, it says. The prize money could also be reduced and linked to "further personal or professional development".

Proposals for the 2007 awards have angered unions representing lecturers and support staff. The Star Awards are just three years old and have been welcomed across the sector.

Dan Taubman, the national FE official of the University and College Union, which is represented on the awards' steering group, has said he would be recommending that the union discontinue its involvement with the awards if the proposals were implemented, He said the Star Awards were designed to celebrate the achievements of those working in further education and to raise the sector's profile, not to share good practice.

"I thought the point about the Star Awards was to raise the national profile, which I think they do," he said. "They're not going to turn it around overnight. I think the idea of going to regional awards cuts the legs off it."

Christine Lewis of the public service union Unison, who is one of the judges, said: "I'm concerned about the future of the awards, and frustrated that maybe what has been achieved hasn't been acknowledged or doesn't seem to be appreciated.

"Certainly from the support staff point of view, our people get very little recognition for what they do. They are pretty invisible and they are half the workforce."

The Star Awards were launched in 2003 by the then education secretary Charles Clarke to create a "feelgood factor" in the learning and skills sector. The initiative mirrors the National Teaching Awards for school teachers, culminating in a gala dinner ceremony for shortlisted winners at a glitzy London venue.

Last April the new Quality Improvement Agency took over responsibility for the Star and Beacon awards from the Department for Education and Skills.

The Star Awards have an annual budget of pound;1 million, of which Pounds 141,000 is spent on the ceremony and pound;19,000 pays for comperes and filming of celebrity "ambassadors" for the sector. The QIA argues that there is a disproportionate number of nominees compared to winners.

This year over 1,300 people have been nominated, to be whittled down to winners and runners up in 17 categories. Most nominees receive no further recognition.

It also questions the reliability of the judging process: judgments are based on 150-word nomination statements, which QIA says, "show considerable variation in clarity and reliability".

It proposes a simpler award scheme. Awards would be presented at regional events "which will nevertheless appropriately recognise the achievements of award winners."

William Lewis, QIA's programme manager for improvement and strategy, said:

"I think we can have a different kind of national awards event. I'm persuaded that there's value in a national awards event and I'm committed to holding that."

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